"Deliberately Incendiary"? Moi?

Powers and Wyman

"Deliberately Incendiary"? Moi?

Powers and Wyman

"Deliberately Incendiary"? Moi?
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 26 1999 8:08 AM

Powers and Wyman

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Dear Ann:

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I made the "45 minutes of lasting music in the last 20 years of his life" statement after doing some addition. About 20 minutes of the so-called comeback special, another six or seven songs. "Viva Las Vegas" is okay. Definitely "Suspicious Minds." "Kentucky Rain." I also like "Marie's the Name" and this or that blithe throwaway, like "Girl Next Door Went a-Walkin'."

I learned a long time ago to be wary of the "Elvis recorded a lot of good stuff in his later years" contention. Readers thinking about picking up one of those $75 multi-CD sets from the 60s and 70s should remember that critics get their copies free. Sometimes I envy the casual music fan. Normal people can say, "Oh, yeah, Elvis, 'Kentucky Rain,' right on." Critics actually have to have listened to his recorded work. I think one of the reasons I'm in such a bad mood is that for the past week I've been checking out tracks from the Harum Scarum soundtrack album. Or maybe it was Clambake, I forget. I stand by my figures.

I think you're right about the willfulness that produces such calculations, though. (I'm talking about post-1958 material, by the way, not post-1956.) I'm an old-fashioned guy. I want my rock stars to produce.

But do keep me separate from the cadre that fetishizes his '50s work. If I think hard I can get a dim sense of what it might have been like to hear "Heartbreak Hotel" as a teenager then. I nearly fainted in 1972 when I first tuned my tiny transistor radio to a pop station (I heard "I Gotcha" by Joe Tex, followed by "A Horse with No Name," as I recall), so I'm sure I would have had a heart attack. Beyond that, I respect Presley's synthesis and am deeply grateful for the chaos that followed. Otherwise, I don't have much use for even the Sun Sessions, and have a deep desire to never again hear "Teddy Bear" or "Hound Dog." I like Presley's '60s stuff the best.

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I'd like more of it, which is why I get so frustrated listening to his work. Why should we take seriously an artist who requires us to paw through dreck to find interesting tidbits? What's your total of lasting material of the last 20 years of his life? Twice what I said - ninety minutes? Two full hours worth?

If I was put in the position of defending Presley, this is what I would say: "I have two words for you: 'Suspicious Minds.'" It's a sui generis bit of Elvisiana. The lyrics are dumb, just blather from a jerk in a bar: "I'll never lie to you"; "I love you so much baby." But the song towers. Another one of the ways Presley lovers bug me is their assertions that Presley was recording up-to-the minute pop at this period of his career. (Up to the minute pop in France, maybe.) Guralnick goes easy on this point in the book, which I respect, though he was one of the chief promulgators of this line in liner notes in the past. The argument I would make for "Suspicious Minds" is that Presley was showing his mastery of yet another genre: the flatulent MOR he was purveying at the time. The result is a still–potent cri de coeur from a worried fat man who was once a big star.

Now here's the crux. I credit Presley with that song. The trembling, concussive delivery of the famously implacable first lines. ("We're caught in a trap / I can't walk out".) The amazing drumming. The oddly driving strings, the cacophonous backup vocals, the head-snapping "don't you know I--" break. And that's him most of all in the not-quite-effortless rise of his voice on the "we can't go on together" part. (On one of the box sets there's a remarkable alternate take of the song sans strings and backing vocal on which you can hear what he's pulling off even better.)

Anyway, if Presley is responsible for that song in 1968, then he's also responsible for the resentful sexism of "Wearin' That Loved On Look" ("The floor needs a touch of the mop"), the lugubriousness of "Long Black Limousine," the utter insipidity of "Gentle on My Mind" and "Rubberneckin'," and the preposterous posturing of "Stranger in My Own Home Town," to name just a few of the celebrated tracks from the allegedly killer Memphis sessions of that year.

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And, again, readers should hear the bad stuff. There's a litany we've always heard. "Elvis loved his fans." Guralnick actually ends his book with a bit of incoherence from Presley about being kind to fans and being "considerate of other people." There's no sense that Guralnick means it ironically, even though that's the only way you can take it. On the evidence, Presley's contempt for his audience was unbounded. He didn't just walk through his recording sessions and stage shows and movie parts. It was more complicated than that. Presley worked at being bad. He gave it the extra effort. Here's just one example: The main reason most of Elvis's post-Army work was substandard was that he essentially demanded songwriting ownership of any song he recorded. In other words, the greatest singer of his time guaranteed that he would record material only from songwriters who were desperate or had no pride. Then he and Col. Tom Parker would sit around and wonder why he wasn't making any hits.

The true fan of Elvis will hold him responsible for all of these things. The alternative is untenable. I've always said that the ultimate Elvis Presley biography will be written in the passive: "Elvis was trapped"; "Elvis wasn't allowed to record what he wanted to." I stopped marking Guralnick's use of the word "trapped" after the half-dozenth time. The subtitle of his book effectively puts Presley in the passive as well.

I agree with you that Guralnick was trying to create an Elvis netherworld. I suppose it's kind of interesting, in a perverse way, that--aside from a perfunctory Beatles reference or two--developments in rock and pop, changes in the music industry, and political happenings are scarcely mentioned over the course of a 700-plus-page book about the life of a rock star in the 1960s. You seemed to indicate you had a quarrel with this. My chief one is that the casual reader won't learn a lot. To pick just one example among many, there's exactly how stupid and avaricious Col. Parker was. While Guralnick keenly charts the way his take of Presley's income grew to 50 percent(!), Parker still comes across as a strange genius, when in fact he was an incompetent fruitcake. The 60s were a different time, before labels and stars figured out the right way to efficiently market themselves, and Presley wasn't the only one of the great figures of the '60s music scene who found himself strangely unliquid at decade's end. But someone unfamiliar with these phenomena might want to know how other stars dealt with the problem, and precisely to what extreme Presley, his chuckleheaded father, and his ludicrous manager took it.

Information and perspective, to me, are crucial when talking about this life. The gulf between Elvis's fans and his critical adherents is weird; together, they live in a space I think of as Elvis World. There are a lot of people out there who genuinely love Elvis. I accept this despite the fact that I've never actually met any of them. (I don't know anyone--besides a critic or two--who owns Elvis records. If I may digress for a minute, I've recently discovered that not only do I not know anyone who owns a Garth Brooks record, I don't know anyone who knows anyone who owns a Garth Brooks record.) This divide exists. The trouble in Elvis World is that I think a lot of urban people think it's amusing that so many suburban and rural folks still like Elvis. The city people adopt Presley as an item of kitsch. They use him as a stock character in fanzines, in art collages, in talk-show monologues. This, in turn, tickles his fan base, who misread it as serious attention from city folks. This cracks up the sophisticates. It's kind of like a mirrored room, with the reflections receding into infinity.

I reject Presley as passive, as an agent acted upon. I reject him as an item of kitsch. My Elvis sucked as heroically, as deliberately, as he shone.

Bill

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Ann Powers is a pop critic for the
New York Times. She is writing a book about the emotional life of modern day bohemia, to be published in fall 1999. Bill Wyman is a critic and editor. He was formerly a staff writer at the Chicago Reader and arts editor of the SF Weekly. This week they discuss Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley,by Peter Guralnick, and Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin,by Alice Echols.